Home for Christmas

16 Dec

Aunt Anna has been reaching out a lot these past few months. She’s been worried. As aunts go they don’t make them better.

She called just yesterday, in fact, wondering how things looked for me getting home for Christmas.

“Do you think you can make the drive?” Anna asked. “Because if not you should take the bus, or stay home even, don’t take any chances.

“Please,” she added, more directive than plea. “Promise me.”

“Haven’t decided yet,” I said. “But don’t worry, I promise not to do anything stupid.

“Besides, I’ve got the opera tickets. If I don’t make it down then how are you gonna get in to see Rigoletto?” (Our Christmas gift to her this year is an evening at The Met.)

Anna laughed, but only a little.

“Don’t be a wiseguy. I can wait to see you until you’re all better. Rigoletto, he can wait too.”

I won’t burden you with details but an accident back in August is what has kept me on the shelf these past months. (Many thanks and love to those of you who have reached out and expressed concern.) For reasons that escape not just me but also the medical brainiacs around here, a full recovery, though likely, has so far been elusive. I haven’t cooked or written a thing this whole time. My mood has been, well, foul.

Anna would never cop to being worried, of course. And she is skilled, unknowingly I think, at keeping your mind off of your troubles.

“The only reason I care if you’re coming is so that I know whether or not to make you eggplant, that’s all,” she told me. (I never leave my aunt’s home at Christmas without a tray of her awesome eggplant parm.) “So as soon as you figure things out you let me know, okay.”

What did I tell you? She’s the best.

Merry Christmas everybody.

See you again soon, I hope.

Paolo’s perfect pesto

12 Jul

In the spring of 2016 my wife and I grabbed a couple of bar stools at a new restaurant here in Portland called Solo Italiano.

Our expectations were low. Very low. Mine especially.

The site, a cavernous onetime furniture store, had long been a place where restaurateurs’ dreams went to die. One by one these people opened their establishments, one by one they packed their belongings and moved on.

Not three bites into my meal I recall muttering these words aloud: “It’ll never last. Never.”

Only not for the reason you may be thinking.

The food at this new restaurant was simply too fine, too authentically Italian, to make it here in Maine. Its creator, a talented Ligurian named Paolo Laboa, just could not have known the heartache he was about to endure cooking things like Stoccafisso and Cima alla Genovese in a place where Pasta e Fagioli might seem exotic to the populace.

I went home that night ecstatic from the delicious meal that we had just enjoyed yet worried sick that the countdown to Solo Italiano’s demise had begun even before its first primi had been served.

Never have I been happier to be so dead wrong.

Not only is Paolo still cooking here in Portland, but Solo Italiano remains among the city’s best-regarded restaurants. Should you ever find yourself in the vicinity I highly recommend a visit. (Tell him the guy who brought him a mess of homemade mortadella sent you!)

I mention all this because recently I spent a couple of weeks in Liguria, in the north of Italy along the Mediterranean coastline. Pesto is more ubiquitous in Liguria than lobster is here in Maine, or barbecue is in Texas, which is to say that I sampled many different versions in dozens of restaurants on my journey. Some pestos were excellent, others extraordinary. But none were as fine as Paolo’s.

Not. One.

I made a batch of Paolo’s pesto soon after returning home from our trip and unpacking the Ligurian olive oils and Italian pine nuts from my baggage. Which got me thinking that you all might want to sample the pesto for yourselves. Paolo has been very generous to share his recipe through the years (here’s a video of him making his pesto on a local TV station in Maine a few years back). It’s a recipe that his mother taught him, handed down generations in his family. Back in 2008 it even won him the World Pesto Championship in Genoa (yes, there is such a thing).

You will not be disappointed.

Trust me on this.

Paolo Laboa’s Pesto Recipe

Use a blender only, NOT a food processor.

Makes 1 1/8 cups

6 cups loosely packed Genovese-style basil leaves

1/3 cup Italian pine nuts

1/3 of a small garlic clove (yes, I said ONLY a third)

1/2 cup fruity, mild extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Ligurian)

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (24 months)

1/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino Sardo or aged Pecorino Toscano cheese

Place the blender jar in freezer to chill thoroughly.

Soak basil leaves in water for around 5 minutes.

Combine nuts and garlic in the chilled jar, then cover with oil. Puree until the mixture is creamy, then add salt. Note: Make sure to PULSE ONLY as constant running will generate heat which will affect flavor.

In 4 batches, lift basil leaves from water and add to blender. Note: Shake off excess water but not all of it, as water helps emulsify the pesto. Pulse until the mixture is smooth.

Add the 2 cheeses and pulse again until fully incorporated.

Transfer the pesto to a container. If you’re not using it immediately, cover with a thin film of oil and refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

There’s an eel in my bathtub

4 May

Okay, so this isn’t my bathtub. But it is a mess of eels, so let’s just start there.

Specifically, this is a pot filled with Aunt Anna’s stewed eel, the kind she often (though, sadly, not always) prepares for Christmas Eve dinner. There are tomatoes and onions and lots and lots of whole olives in Anna’s stewed eel, but the best part about it is that only a few of us at the table will eat any of it. That means more eel for, well, me.

My mother cooked eel a lot when I was a boy. The men in the neighborhood who used to go fishing in Jamaica Bay often returned home with lots of live eels in their buckets. Mom being a pretty well-known user of the species the men often offered their eels to her as gifts.

Be patient. The bathtub thing is coming up soon, I promise.

Anyway, my mother worked all day. Either she was behind the counter or in the kitchen of our fountain service store, or hunched over a Singer doing piecework for the ladies’ garment factory blocks away. Evenings were the time for coping with her live eels, not afternoons when they would always be left for her.

These were not tiny eels, by the way; often they were in the three-feet-in-length range if memory serves. Mom being the sensitive type leaving the poor live eels crammed into little five-gallon buckets all day long didn’t sit too well, and so, in the eels went to a bathtub filled with plenty of fresh water for them to swim around in.

Get the picture?

It is important to mention that this bathtub mom so generously offered as an eel pond, for entire afternoons on end, was the only bathtub in the only bathroom of the apartment that she shared with her husband and three young sons.

I do not know when my brothers were first introduced to our mother’s eel husbandry, but me? Clear as day, this memory of mine.

It was a very hot Saturday afternoon one summer and I had just gotten home from playing league baseball up in Highland Park. The walk home was around a mile, which was brutal wearing an entire baseball uniform, and so stripping down and jumping into a cool shower was all that my ten-year-old brain could wrap itself around.

Nobody was home when I arrived and so I immediately made a beeline for the bathroom. Uncle Joe had recently completed a fancy upgrade to our bathtub, two sliding glass doors to replace a simple shower rod. The glass was frosted, which I now assume was to allow for privacy (five people, one small bathroom, remember?).

I slid open the frosted-glass door and there they were: four or five very large and very alive black eels. Swimming around in the place I was supposed to be cooling and cleaning off in the dead of summer. I didn’t know what exactly they were at the time, of course; I was too busy slamming the glass door shut so that they couldn’t leap out from their pond and go all Creature Feature on me.

A cool, cleansing post-baseball shower was not in the cards for me that day, at least not until mom got home and attended to her guests.

As it happens, I missed out on many more post-ballgame showers throughout my childhood. Mom’s eels-in-the-bathtub holding strategy worked pretty well, I guess, because she never saw reason to change it.

Years later I married a woman who enjoys eating eel, especially Aunt Anna’s, as much as I do.

She did make me promise to never allow a single live eel to swim in our home. Ever.

And, so far, I have obliged.

The Easter parade

17 Apr

Judging by the size of us I’ll take a stab and peg this snap at 1959, or maybe it was ’60. Location: Almost assuredly Liberty Avenue, somewhere between Shepherd and Essex, in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

Judging by the threads that our mothers have put us into it could be only one specific day, that being Easter Sunday of course, a sunny and beautiful one it appears, though that is the only kind of Easter Sunday that I can recall there ever being. No other day could we have been dressed in this way.

This group represents fewer than half of those of us in this partcular generation of our family. The rest are somewhere close by, I assure you, as all of us lived together on the same street and in the same buildings.

Underneath the Easter bonnets are the two Ursulas, each carrying the name of our grandmother, though with the added “Big” and “Little” designations tacked on so as to not be mistaken for one another. In the interest of not embarassing one boy in particular, I’ll leave the rest of our pack unidentified (though I must admit to feeling envious of Cousin Bobo’s spiffy porkpie and pocket square).

This photo came to me by utter coincidence (I swear) only moments ago. It being Easter Sunday I’ve decided to post it here, despite having insufficient time to discuss it with you all further.

Apologies for that.

And Happy Easter everybody.

Clam sauce quickie

27 Dec

The simple things absolutely are the best. Trouble is I often neglect to share them with you here, for fear of boring everybody half to death.

Hell, the only reason I bothered to snap a shot of this finished product last night is so that I could text it to my brother Joe. He is a bit under the weather, you see, sustaining himself with bourbon shots and cans of Chickarina soup; and, well, torturing my younger brother is just something that I like to do.

As with many simple dishes, this clam sauce was a last-minute kind of deal, made strictly with items found in the cupboard and the fridge, nothing more.

The Ingredients

1 lb. pasta (linguini, spaghetti, like that, cooked in well-salted water)

2 6.5-oz cans of chopped clams (including juices)

2 heads of garlic

A bunch of high-quality anchovy fillets

Crushed hot pepper to taste

A handful of chopped parsley

The How-to

Very slowly sauté the garlic cloves (whole or roughly chopped) in extra virgin olive oil until soft and caramelized.

Add the anchovy and pepper and sauté for around a minute.

Add the clams in their juices and the parsley and bring to a boil.

Add the cooked pasta and stir until fully incorporated.

And that, as they say, is that.

Feel better brother. You’ll be off the Chickarina and back onto real food in no time.

You can go home again

16 Dec

This is the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. After a few hours of eating and drinking and laughing and gift exchanging the gang, 11 of us regulars in all, parks itself on and/or near the closest upholstered furniture for the annual family photo.

A very good time is had by all.

This is absolutely not the way that Christmas Eves are supposed to wind up. As you can plainly see there are fewer bodies in this 2020 family portrait. Two fewer, actually.

That’s because a series of COVID-related issues prevented my wife Joan and me from attending. We were not the only citizens of the world who discovered ourselves in this deeply unfortunate predicament, just the only ones in our family.

The image above was texted to me moments after it was captured. The banner marks Cousin Josephine’s December 24 birthday, a significant one that I am also very sorry to have missed. The frames that people are holding house select (and individually meaningful) family photographs, ones that I had shipped to the usual Christmas Eve gathering place, Aunt Anna’s and Aunt Rita’s apartment in Queens.

It just totally sucked not being there.

Fortunately this year should mark a return to normal. In just a few days’ time Joan and I will pack up the car and head to where we belong on Christmas Eve. (If you are in need of food visuals of the traditional meal you can find them in this post from years back.)

It will be very, very good to be back home.

Merry Christmas everybody.

Look who’s not talking

1 Nov

My grandparents did not speak English well. They had emigrated to America in the early 1900s, fleeing extreme poverty in their home in Southern Italy. The place where they settled, a little-known section of Brooklyn known as East New York, was also impoverished, but much less so. There they lived and worked alongside other Italian immigrants just like themselves, and so the community relied heavily on its native tongue.

Decades later, when my two brothers, dozen or so cousins and I were growing up together in our grandparents’ modest side-by-side apartment buildings the official language in our home was English. Italian was spoken only when “the grownups” spoke amongst themselves, and only intermittently. 

In our family, it seemed, the adults’ shared secrets were closely guarded by a language that they could all speak freely but their children could not.

It wasn’t until I was in my late-twenties that it occurred to me to get angry about all this. There I was on a much-anticipated first trip to Italy and the only language skill that I had was an English-Italian dictionary stuffed in the back pocket of my blue jeans.

I was ashamed of my Italian-American self then. I am still.

Of all the things I have worked to teach myself in life, the language of my ancestors, a lovely and wonderfully expressive one at that, has gone largely ignored.

For years I blamed my family elders for not sharing with my generation the gift of their bilingualism. And for what? I come from a line of good and honest people. What kinds of secrets could they have had? Not many bad ones, I’m pretty certain, and so what was the point of keeping this entirely romantic language all to themselves?

No, the real reason why my brothers and cousins and I were not raised to be bilingual is a much sadder one, at least it is to me. Our parents and grandparents thought it best for our generation—for our future prospects in the country we lived in, that is—that we not be Italians like they were but Americans. 

Fully assimilated Americans. 

Through. And through. And through.

Days ago I was on a plane traveling from Milan’s Malpensa Airport to New York’s JFK International, only a few miles from the place my grandparents had settled and lived out the rest of their lives. My wife Joan and I had just spent three weeks traveling in Italy, a place we have been to many times before and which we both love quite a lot. When we are in Italy it is I who does most of the communicating with the locals, but not without great preparation and practice and, yes, anxiety. Often these Italian-language encounters are less than fully successful, rarely are they completely satisfying. Never are they natural and comfortable and intimate.

I am a monolingual American all right.

Of course I alone am to blame for this, not my grandparents nor any of their children. Learning another language requires study and commitment, and the sad truth is that studious and disciplined I am not. Never have been.

I cannot tell you how deeply I regret this character flaw.

When I was a younger man it was easy to trick myself into believing that I could right myself one day.

It isn’t so easy anymore.

Far from home

4 Oct

It’s been a while, I know. How’s everybody been holding up?

You’d think that nearly two years of sticking close to home might lead to a lot of kitchen time and a constant flow of recipes and stories to share with you here.

I was thinking the same thing at the beginning of the pandemic. So we were both wrong.

It was four or five months into the thing when the first queries started to appear.

“Where the hell are you? I need some new stuff to cook–and you haven’t given us anything in a while. What gives?”

“I’m stuck here under quarantine and could really use a couple of new pasta ideas. Please, can you give us one before the weekend?”

That kind of thing.

As the many months wore on the tone of the messages changed dramatically.

“Haven’t seen a new post for quite a while. I hope everything is all right with you and that the virus hasn’t visited upon you or your family.”

“It’s been so long since we’ve heard from you. I miss you. Are you okay?”

And then, the inevitable.

“Have you shut down Mister Meatball? Are you there?”

Shutting the place down has in fact crossed my mind many times; it does still today. The reason that I haven’t yet is because I want to believe that things can go back to the way they used to be. That I can go back to the man I used to be.

You see, cooking used to be a joyful thing. Most of my earliest memories involve food: waking up to the smell of my mother’s meatballs frying on Sunday morning; hanging from the strong arm of my uncle Joe while he dipped crusty bread into a pot of tender trippa to give his two-year-old godson a taste; watching my father frying his eggs and rice and meat scraps of all kinds in a hot black iron skillet.

Food is home to me. If not for these and countless other memories, well, there would never have been a Mister Meatball blog in the first place.

But the pandemic has changed my relationship with food, and not in a good way. At the beginning, and for months and months and months on end, simply going out to shop for food felt fraught with danger and unpleasantness. In an instant food went from being about pleasure and joy and sharing and loving people to being about simple sustenance and ice cold practicality.

I’ve never been much prone to depression but I’ll admit that this whole wretched mess really has thrown me horribly off center. Which is the reason this blog has remained mostly silent and unattended for some time.

All I can do is hope to find a way back home.

The last eggplant parm

28 Apr

Looks promising enough, am I right?

Actually, I am wrong.

This is what I was aiming for. It is Aunt Anna’s light-as-air eggplant parmigiana, and it is perfect. Always.

“I don’t know how she does it” is a comment that I have heard uttered often and by many through the years. A close Associate of mine, one who abhors any and all parmigiana, no matter how finely prepared, craves my aunt’s eggplant.

For the past few Christmases Anna has been kind enough to freeze a tray of her eggplant parm, a gift meant to be transported from her apartment in Queens to my home here in Maine. I have grown accustomed to receiving this gift and was sorely disappointed when this past Christmas, due to the pandemic, I could not attend our family’s holiday meal.

Recently I tried to imitate my aunt’s eggplant in my own kitchen. You see, a lovely 98-year-old woman named Virginia, my wife’s mother in fact, had been ailing. After a while she lost almost all interest in food.

Her daughter had spent an entire weekend preparing things that might stimulate an appetite. There were short ribs and lamb shanks, pilafs and frittatas, chowders and creamed spinach, her favorite, and more. My principal job was to lend moral support and then pack single-serving meals into easy-to-handle containers for freezing and microwaving.

As is often the case, however, I was also tasked with introducing a bit of levity into an otherwise unfortunate time. And cooking up a batch of Anna’s eggplant parm felt like it might do the trick.

Ginny had been introduced to my aunt’s eggplant one Christmas, and in the most laughable way. The complete story can be found here but the short version is this: My mother-in-law’s planned holiday meal hadn’t been terribly well planned at all. When it became evident that our Christmas Day dinner was nowhere to be had, it was Anna’s eggplant, still frozen in the trunk of my car, that saved the day.

Ginny laughed and laughed at how preposterous it was to retrieve a holiday dinner out of the trunk of a car, and not a Christmas Day went by after that where she didn’t reminisce about the eggplant that had saved an earlier one.

Days after we’d stocked her freezer with food, I received a text from Ginny. (Yes, at 98, the woman was undaunted by technology.)

“The eggplant was delicious. You give your aunt some competition. Just finished a serving and my mouth is still watering. Good job!”

I had tasted my eggplant before gifting it to my mother-in-law and I assure you that my dear aunt has absolutely nothing to worry about. Trust me on this.

Still, Ginny had eaten the stuff, and that was all that really mattered.

“Nice of you to say,” I texted back. “But next year you’ll get the REAL thing from Anna, I hope.”

A few weeks later my wife’s mother passed, in the very town where she and her husband Dave had courted as young M.I.T. students. Soon her daughter and I will scatter Ginny’s ashes nearby, in the same spot as Dave’s.

I am planning to ask Anna if she wouldn’t mind providing us with a farewell meal.

Chocolate pignoli cookies

3 Jan

I’m not a man who messes with tradition. And yet here we are, fiddling with one of the most traditional recipes of all, the pignoli cookie.

Blame the global pandemic.

I do.

See, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately. (You are familiar with this concept, no?) After making a couple batches of my traditional pignoli cookie recipe, well, I just had to start messing around.

And so here you go, a chocolate version.

Hey, new traditions have gotta start somewhere.

Chocolate Pignoli Cookies Recipe

Makes about a dozen cookies  

8 ounces almond paste (do not us tubes; use either canned or foil wrapped)

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

3 tbsp flour

1/4 cup cocoa powder

1 extra large egg white

1 tsp vanilla extract

8 oz raw pignoli (pine nuts)  

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F

In a food processor, crumble the almond paste, then add the sugars, flour and cocoa and mix until fine. 

Add the egg white and vanilla and mix until dough forms.

Empty the pignoli into a bowl. Scoop out small amounts of the dough (wet hands help and so I keep a bowl filled with water on hand), then roll in pignoli until coated. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes. Rotate the sheet and bake another 10 minutes or so.

Allow to cool, give a light dusting of confectioners sugar and serve.